Cognitive scientist turned journalist, Stav Dimitropoulos has so far explored behavioural economics and psychometric testing as smart businesses are swotting up on the brain’s inner workings to find the most suitable employees and craft the best customer offering. Now she turns her attention to the future trends to find out what’s next.

This is the third and final part of our Neural Network series. Read part one, here and part two, here.

FUTURE TRENDS: Will neuroscience corner the market?

What’s the last frontier for humans to explore? Artificial intelligence? Immortality? Space? The ocean? Or is it the 1.4kg mass of grey and white matter that fills the upper part of your bony head? If you went with the last option, you are certainly a fan of neuroscience.

Neuroscience studies how the nervous system develops, how it is built and what it does. It focuses on the question of how neural layers underlie certain human (and animal) behaviours. Neuroscience has made impressive leaps over the past years; businesses are increasingly looking into the brain’s foldings to investigate what makes customers tick. “This is because we know now that so much decision-making is based on processes that happen subconsciously,” says Heather Andrew, CEO at Neuro- Insight, a world leader in neuroscience- based market research, based at Workspace’s Metal Box Factory.

Heather AndrewCEO at Neuro- Insight

“Let’s say you ask people how many times they went to the cinema last month or what the name of their dog is. People should be able to tell you those sorts of things, but when you start talking to them about the motivations behind their behaviour, then things change. Often people just don’t know. And, even if they know, they might not be willing to tell you. And that is where neuroscience comes in.”

Neuro-Insight uses Steady State Topography (SST), a technology that records and measures electrical signals in the brain in order to build a second-by- second picture of brain activity. “We can then link that to behaviour. We can identify the cognitive processes that correlate with decision-making in purchase behaviour. And we know that the brain’s responsive behaviour can be more accurate than spoken responses,” says Andrew.

Testing at Neuro-Insight

Joseph Devlin, Head of Experimental Psychology at University College London, is in firm agreement. “Neuroscience can help tackle problems that arise when businesses target only the conscious spheres of human activity, which are full of irrationality,” Devlin says.

SST is used to assess how well advertising works. A classical study on smoking highlights its advantages. In 2011, researchers Emily Falk and Elliot Berkman designed three different advertising campaigns to get people to stop smoking. They brought a normal focus group together and asked members to say which campaign was the most effective. They then put them in magnetic resonance imaging – a medical imaging technique that produces three- dimensional, detailed, anatomical images – and watched their brain activity during the time they watched the three ads.

Devlin explains, “If you asked them which ad was more interesting, they answered that A was better than B, which was better than C, but if you looked at their brain activity in terms of the most rewarding experience, the best option was B followed by C followed by A. They repeated the procedure with different groups and when the time came to test these ads in the real world with hundreds of thousands of people, they found that the results based on the brain responses were more accurate than those based on spoken responses.”

Neuroscience finds our brain responses to be a far superior truth index than what comes out of our mouths, but which are the specific parts of the brain that drive these responses, say in the arena of the economy? The whole brain is involved in purchase behaviour, but some areas are particularly important for predicting it. The limbic system in the middle of the brain is the most ancient set of brain structures that mediates our emotions and memories. Devlin elaborates, “This is involved in emotional processing and also to some extent in reward processing. If somebody walks up to you on the street and gives you £10 just because they are nice, you have a shot of dopamine in that alley, a brain chemical that will indicate an unexpected reward.”

Joseph DevlinHead of Experimental Psychology at University College London

Then there is the very front section of the brain, the medial prefrontal cortex, which is masterful at controlling cognitive functions such as planning, attention, problem-solving, error-monitoring, decision-making, social cognition and working memory. “This seems to be a particularly important part of the brain for encoding how much you value a choice,” says Devlin. “If you love chocolate and somebody gives you chocolate, your medial cortex will appreciate that with a lot of activation.”

Devlin is quick to point out that these parts of the brain feed into both emotion and logic. This is because the limbic system includes some of the key emotional centres of the brain such as the amygdala. This almond-shaped structure is responsible for triggering the primordial fight-or-flight response. The limbic system is also attached to one of the most evolved regions of the brain, which is crucial for decision-making and digesting information, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

To understand brand attachment from a neuroscience standpoint, this is the area of the brain we need to examine. Devlin says, “When you choose to buy a product there are a couple of things going on in your brain. You have some kind of emotional attachment to the product you want to buy. You also have some sort of trust in it, trust that you are buying something you will like. Or perhaps it is a matter of habit. All these are essentially subconscious processes. Your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex takes the relevant information and guides the decision you are going to make as a consumer.”

The brain works by association. If we get a tidbit of information, we link it to other tidbits we perceive to be of the same type, explains Andrew. She says, “Think about what brands are. Imagine a place in our brains for brand. This is brand equity. It is a sum of all the experiences, all the ads we have seen, and what our friends have told us. If we were to produce the perfect ad, we should make sure first to stir emotion among people, and then to store it into memory.”

For all its glorious promise, the intersection between neuroscience and business does not come without its sceptics, surprisingly from within neuroscience itself. Padoa-Schioppa is still uncertain about whether our knowledge of neuroscience is deep enough to influence marketing. “Our understanding is limited to how the brain influences economic decisions, as opposed to why. Assume we understand the brain processes behind temporal discounting. This will not tell us much about why people prefer to pay later than sooner,” he says.

Much of his reservation boils down to the fact that neuroscience is still in its infancy. It remains to be seen just how much the realm of neuroscience, fast on its way to becoming the dominant paradigm in psychology, will shake up the way we approach business today and in the future.

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